Faith in secular sacred things

May 26, 2012 | By | 6 Replies More

Ever since I was a teenager, it has been my quest to not rest until I figured out everything I could about why I existed and what it meant to live a moral life. This made loads of sense to me, since I couldn’t know how to live my life until I knew the rules of the game. But now I’m 56, and I need to admit that it doesn’t look likely that I’ll have everything figured out before I die. In fact it looks like I’ll be lucky to scratch the surface before I die. In writing this, I’m not demeaning the work of thousands of scientists. We’ve learned an incredible amount about human animals. It’s just that each answer to each question seems to raise another question or two.

Part of my strategy has been to take a close look at the things people deem to be sacred. These things have always been the head-scratchers for me (e.g. the claim that a virgin could have a baby or the claim that a country that is so politically dysfunction could be deemed “the world’s greatest democracy.” I’m not certain whether it is helpful in the long run to directly question others’ non-questionable beliefs, but that is my faith–I believe that more knowledge is better for all of us, and that exploring these enigmas will help us to understand the kinds of animals we are. Attempting to understand human animals is one of my own sacred endeavors. The saying of Socrates constantly resonates with me: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Image by Rixie at Dreamstime (with permission)

Sometimes, especially more recently, I have had doubts about my own method. Questioning the sacred things of others pisses them off. It often causes social temperatures to rise, resulting in more heat than light. I also wonder whether I’m being disingenuous. I claim that I am going around picking off other peoples’ scabs for science and understanding, but am I just being annoying? A voyeur? Am I being sadistic?

Things have come much more clearly into focus recently, after I completed reading Jonathan Haidt’s newest book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt’s writings have given me a new appreciation for the fact that all of us, whether religious or secular, have designated certain things to be “sacred.” These are non-negotiable, or at least they purport to be–that is the nature of sacred things. I’ve come to understand that my need to question is one of those things that I hold to be sacred. I would rather die than give this up; my own position reminds me of the rhetoric of a Christian who would rather die than give up belief in the divinity of Jesus. I’ve touched on many of the other issues raised by Haidt in my five-part series, Mending Fences.

I’m not sure where all of this is leading. When I look back on my life I can see, more clearly than ever, that I am not a joiner. I have always been suspicious of groups of people, especially passionate people whose version of truth is bound up in their passion. In short, I’ve never embraced a political party or a religion. I am less willing to do so now than ever. Haidt points out that cohesive groups of people spin their own versions of morality, and this morality “binds and blinds.” This is clearer than ever to me. Groups of humans knit the social fabric in such a way that the words spoken by the members of the group encourage intricate webs of allegiance in order to avoid freeloaders. Inside cohesive groups, the community words serve as social sonar, testing and challenging members to reciprocate, to demonstrate their loyalty, often by uttering words and phrases that are nonsensical to those who are self-critical (and most of us are self-critical regarding the beliefs of groups to which I don’t belong).

Since I’ve never been a joiner, I have rarely gotten caught up in groups or group beliefs. I wonder whether my repulsion from joining has served as an advantage to me throughout my life. I tend to clearly see the absurdities the beliefs of groups: Christians, Muslims, Republicans, Democrats and New Atheists. I’m not claiming my vision is perfect, but I always see problems with cohesive groups, problems that are big enough that I am incapable of stating “I can be one of you.” I’m not just making wild claims here. My tendencies are clear based on thousands of articles I’ve written at this website over the past six years. I am definitely not a joiner. Consequently, you will be hard pressed to find a group whose beliefs (including whose fundamental beliefs) I haven’t questioned.

I have blasphemously uttered that “Loyalty is not a Virtue.” Perhaps what I meant when I wrote that article parallels Haidt’s observation that morality binds and blinds.

Tonight, then. I am re-thinking that I am a loner, which comes with both advantages and disadvantages. Those close to me know that I sometimes (often?) treat ideas as more important than individual people and moments. I don’t do this to be cold-hearted. I hope I don’t do this because I’m anti-social. I think that I do this because my quest is to figure things out–a quest that has been rather intense for several decades, and it continues on. I don’t often question my own quest, which is exactly what one would expect if my quest were sacred to me. Which is what I’ve come to conclude recently.

Now I need to figure out my next steps. What if one’s drive to understand the human condition is sacred? What does this mean regarding one’s need to self-critically examine one’s own sacred beliefs? What does it mean regarding the human tendency to hold that the means justify the ends when one pursues the things one holds to be sacred? What does this mean when one’s sacred quest tempts one to pick the scabs of others, leaving raw their own sacred beliefs?

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Category: Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. Chip Camden says:

    This is the most honest thing I have read in some time. I feel much the same way. Maybe we should form a new religion</kidding>

  2. I too feel the same; what is sacred to me is a quest for the truth. I started that quest when I was 15 when I questioned the notion of sin (in the Catholic dogma). In the following years, I rejected all religions that impose their tenets.
    I have never been a joiner and have been a fighter against prejudice wherever it happens.

  3. Xtexh says:

    Rejean said it: For you, the search for truth is paramount.

  4. Pat Whalen says:

    I only skimmed your various post on toning down the rhetoric. My conclusion is that you are largely tilting at windmills.

    I think most atheist are capable of interacting cordially with theist of all stripes and intensity in various contexts that does not involve religion. Even religious discussion can go well if our conversation partners can handle an opposing view. To paraphrase a saying “hate the belief, not the believer” (forget where I saw that quote)

    But there are issues that can’t be backed down from. Replacing science with religious dogma in public schools for instance is not acceptable.

    While I feel that holding to any incorrect belief has a cost I don’t feel a great need to enlighten theist. However when the negative impacts of those beliefs spill into the broader community it is entirely appropriate to address those issues.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Pat: In my “Mending Fences” series, I believe I ended up adopting an approach much like the one you suggest. I’m not actively picking fights, but neither am I buttoning my lips. And I’m certainly not standing still while anyone tries to delete my civil rights–this is where things can get ugly. But here are a couple more ideas: Anything that can be communicated in anger can also be communicated with some compassion. I don’t shy from the truth merely because it might offend someone; communicating the truth is a way of showing respect, even where it offends, especially where it offends. Nor do I need to pour out the truth, like water out of a fire hydrant, where it pummels on groupish beliefs of others. Where truth can come out like a blast, it can also come out more slowly, and it should come out more slowly where it makes the truth more understandable. Nowhere have I ever suggested that competent science should be kept under locks. It should never be kept under locks.

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